Treating us like criminals
Pressures increase on activists involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign
Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani
February 21, 2007
The “One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding an End to Discriminatory Laws against Women” was launched five months ago. Our demands in this effort are clear: an end to discriminatory laws against women. The identities of activists involved in the Campaign are even clearer. They include all citizens who have taken on the responsibility of collecting signatures demanding changes to discriminatory laws and all those who distribute educational pamphlets, describing and explaining current laws.
The identities of our supporters are also clear. Our supporters are comprised of women and men committed to justice -- all of whom have proven this commitment in their steadfast pursuit of cultural and legal advancement and progress. The strategy of the Campaign, too, is clear. The campaign utilizes a peaceful and civil approach of face-to-face education, where dialogue can take place with respect to current laws (especially family law) with citizens who are provided an opportunity to express their viewpoints and in cases of agreement sign a petition demanding changes to the law.
For over a century, our mothers and grandmothers have expressed demands along the same lines. In fact, for the past one hundred years, they have written about these very issues and analyzed and explained the impact of discriminatory laws on the lives of both men and women. Divorce rights, child custody rights, increase in the legal age of girls, abolishment of laws that support honor killings, fair employment rights, etc., these are the specific issues that the majority of activists involved in the Campaign are working to redress.
The information about the Campaign and its activities and articles by Campaign members, are shared on a website, aptly called, “Change for Equality.” This site belongs to all those who have supported this effort and those who write for the site and in so doing speak of their personal experiences, so that their efforts and ideas can be recorded as part of the broader history of the women’s movement. In fact, this site provides a medium for the exchange of ideas and reflects the words of all those who speak of the Campaign and about women’s rights, including Ayatollah Bojnourdi, Member of Parliament, Fatemeh Alia, Dr. Khosrow Khavar, Shahla Shafigh, Dr. Nayereh Tohidi, and Mr. Keyvan Samimi, among others.
The Campaign is aiming to collect one million signatures over the course of 2 years, with the intent of presenting these signatures to the parliament. The priorities identified by those who sign the petition will in turn define the priorities of the Campaign with respect to changes proposed to the law. Legal changes will be proposed through draft legislation prepared by scholars like Shirin Ebadi and presented to the parliament for consideration.
The Siege of Containment Grows Tighter Each Day
So, what part of our activities within the campaign are unjustified and worthy of punishment? I raise this question because since the inception of the Campaign, its members have suffered the wrath of the security forces. We have become powerless, asked for mercy and are now wondering exactly what crime we have committed deserving of such retribution -- a retribution which has been inflicted upon us quietly and gradually.
In our interrogations you reiterate: “we have no problems with your demands!” We ask ourselves “which part of our activities then are indeed problematic?” When we hold peaceful protests, we are greeted with violence and are told that with public protests we are crossing the “red line” of the regime. In the past few years, we have tried all possible civic and peaceful strategies for giving voice to these very demands which you claim not to be problematic. Once again, we have chosen the most peaceful of strategies, so that god forbid, we do not cause any problems for anyone -- meaning face-to-face dialogue and the collection of signatures. Truly, we wonder, is there a more civic and peaceful strategy than that adopted by the Campaign?
But, unfortunately, we have come to realize that the “red line” of the regime and its limits, are indeed endless. You ask “why do you first want to collect signatures?” “If your intent is to take these signatures to the parliament, why don’t you just go to the parliament in the first place?” Perhaps reformist women who want to engage in direct discussions with members of parliament are advised as such: “why talk to MPs, you should seek Fatwas in support of your demands from religious leaders?” And again, those women who seek Fatwas from religious leaders, are urged to “first focus on enlightening women”. In short, it seems that all the various women’s groups with their different perspectives and strategies are somehow deluded. So, perhaps this is the reason why you don’t have a problem with our demands, rather the real problem is with our individual strategies in the women’s movement.
We believed that since we are being prevented from conducting peaceful protests, perhaps the collection of one million signatures in support of our demands, with the intent of submitting them to the parliament, would go to prove that we are not looking for a fight rather we are looking to achieve our very just demands. Despite all this, since the inception of the Campaign five months ago, members of the campaign have had the misfortune of experiencing a crisis of some sort on a bi-weekly basis. As a result, we have been forced into a state of fear and anxiety, forced to comfort one another, forced to address the multiple crises at hand, and forced to continually reassure one another that we are indeed not engaged in any sort of illegal activity -- so why is it that we live in such fear? Are we asking for anything more than justice and our basic human rights? We remain astonished and can’t understand what all the arrests, threats and the harassment (sometimes carried out overtly and sometimes carried out covertly and quietly) are for?
Misfortune and Disaster Befall us Quietly
Examining the problems and misfortunes experienced by members of the Campaign over the past five months, we quickly realize that in fact you have no problems with our demands, rather the problems stem from the presence of each and every individual involved in the Campaign:
* The seminar launching the Campaign was cancelled by security forces. We were told that “the problem was not with the seminar itself, rather there was a problem with the fact that members, in promoting and announcing the seminar, had an interview with a foreign broadcast (Radio Farda).” So, it was that our seminar was banned and our Campaign targeted from the very start. Quickly, we too realized that no one has a problem our demands or the conference hall in which our seminar was being held, rather the problem is with the fact that we chose to inform the public about our seminar. We knew for certain that if we were to hold our seminar in an empty hall, delivering speeches to ourselves and for ourselves, there would be no problem.
* Zeynab Payghambarzadeh, a young and active member of the Campaign was arrested on the metro, while collecting signatures and distributing pamphlets about the Campaign. She remained in prison for five days. And we realized that there was no problem with Zeynab or her demands, rather the problem was with those who “deceived” Zeynab in the first place, forcing her to join the Campaign.
* Nasim Sarabandi and Fatemeh Dehdashti, two young members of the Campaign were also arrested on the Metro. In their possession were a few statements in support of the Campaign and a number of educational brochures. So, they were arrested and transferred to prison. Authorities told these young women that they had “no problems with them or with their demands as expressed through the Campaign, rather they had a problem with the persons who deceived them and other young women, sending them to public locations in search of signatures -- people like Shirin Ebadi.”
* Because of the distribution of a few pamphlets explaining the goals of the Campaign in her place of employment, Shahla Entesari, another member of the Campaign was dismissed from her job. Certainly there is no problem with our demands, but it is better that those who work to achieve these demands are fired from their work and forced to expend their energies on finding new employment and making ends meet, rather than pursuing the goals of the Campaign.
* Over the course of the past five months we have requested permits for the convening of seminars from at least 10 cultural centers, but since there is no problem with our demands, we were denied permits in all cases. We hold protests, and are told to hold seminars instead. We try to hold seminars, but are denied permits or we are told that our speakers are problematic, we change the speakers, and after endless hours of negotiation, somehow our request for a permit is still denied.
* When we are denied space for our seminars, we have no other choice but to hold our meetings in homes of Campaign members. One such meeting was held in the basement of Mrs. Mahlagha Mallah’s apartment building, a 90 year old woman with a strong commitment and background of defending the environment, who is then phoned and threatened. “We wanted to arrest you because of the meeting you held in your home.”
* When we are denied space to conduct our activities, we have no other choice but to squeeze into our own apartments and homes to hold training workshops. Inevitably the police come to warn our neighbors about the “suspicious” comings and goings in our apartments. You try to sensitize our neighbors, so that perhaps they can carryout your duties in your stead. Then you claim again that the “demands of our Campaign are indeed just and that you have no problems with them.”
* You subject the members of the Campaign working in the provinces to all sorts of pressures. They are denied office space for their NGO activities, their NGOs shut down and their members threatened. You spread rumors that would frighten to death even the most seasoned of civil society activists. For example, in the city of Gorgan, you start rumors about how activists involved in the Campaign are working toward a “velvet revolution!” Activists in the Provinces have fewer resources and supports than those in Tehran. What can they do? So they assume that you do not have a problem with their demands, but that the closed culture within their province is the cause of their pressure.
* Twice and in less than a month’s time, the site of the Campaign is filtered and blocked, because as the whole world now knows, “you have no problems with the rightful demands of Iranian women.”
* Local police stations are brought on as your collaborators, and they work to coerce and threaten parents, so that they can confront their children. You call the homes of Campaign members, and inform their parents about the existence of lists -- lists of persons who should be “advised” and lists of persons scheduled to be “arrested.” Interestingly enough, the police emphasize that parents should not convey these “private” conversations to their daughters rather they should advise them and guide them so that they are not “deceived by others.”
* To our total disbelief, you arrest three members of the Campaign, Talat Taghinia, Mansoureh Shojaee and Farnaz Seify, and politely place them in jail. You rampage their homes. You confiscate their personal property -- their computers and their birth certificates. Under the interrogation forms, you repeatedly write notes to yourself reminding you of the fact that you should not ask any written questions about the Campaign, so that no one doubts the notion that you do not have a problem with the Campaign. So that instead we begin to doubt ourselves. But what we don’t understand is the fact that in oral interrogations you repeatedly question these women about how the Campaign was formed. You tell these three women that you don’t have a problem with their demands nor with the Woman’s Cultural Center -- their NGO -- which is one of the most active NGOs involved in the Campaign, rather you only have a problem with their trip to India and the workshop in which they intended to participate. But still, we don’t understand if you only have a problem with their trip, why is it that you have confiscated the official stamp of the “Women’s Cultural Center.” Perhaps your strategies serve as a good excuse for us to start attacking one another and looking for the “one” at fault.
* You ban Sussan Tahmasebi from travel, because we all know that you have no problems with the human rights demands of women, rather you have a problem with the relationship of Campaign members with the international women’s movements and human rights defenders in other countries.
* You start rumors about the ethical, financial and sexual misconduct of campaign members, about their uncontrollable desire for fame, their relations with foreigners, their preparations for carrying out velvet revolutions, and other strange and bizarre behavior, which seem somehow to surface of their own accord. Of course, there “does”-not exist any formal and organized venue through which these rumors are spread. But with the help of these rumors, the public can come to understand that the women engaged in activities designed to achieve their rights, are in fact, terribly dreadful women starved for attention and fame, in search of asylum in the West, who view themselves as central to the women’s movement, and other such childish accusations. Perhaps all these rumors have surfaced simply because you have “no problems with our demands” and you simply regret that these very “worthy” demands are expressed by “unworthy” women like us.
* We know that you have no problems with our demands, only with the platforms through which we express them. As such, you keep setting new limits and “red lines” for the media and the press, and reduce daily the number of “legal” news outlets and internet sites, through which we give expression to our cause. In this way, you instill fear into the hearts of all women’s rights activists, forcing them to doubt themselves and to think that if perhaps they did not use certain “unacceptable” platforms for the expression of their demands, their problems would miraculously disappear! Despite all our self censorship, we see that our problems persist. So, we are forced to look for the problem among ourselves, and we are forced to distrust one another and our activities, and start to hunt for those at fault within our own circles! This way, you can rest assured that we will voluntarily, in pursuit of those at fault, work to exclude one another. In fact it seems that your problem is that you don’t want us to express our rightful demands through interviews with the press or through our own writings for various online Farsi language websites, because you don’t want these pure demands to be given voice in sites belonging to foreigners. But there remains one small problem. You have left us no national platforms. You order the editors of the official newspapers in the country not to cover any news about the Campaign, and increase pressures on these publications with the aim of preventing us from publishing our articles. Possibly, these editors too know that you have no problem with our demands. Simply put, you only have problems with the expression of our demands through national and foreign media outlets.
* It is especially interesting that suddenly a website forging a replica of the logo of the Campaign and calling itself “One Billion Signatures” is launched. With a satiric approach, the goals of the Campaign are ridiculed in this site and the same allegations that activists often face in court, are provided in this website to readers. Laced with patriarchal interpretations, the website aims to discredit the activists involved in the Campaign, so that our demands, which no one seems to have a problem with, are not taken seriously. God forbid our demands, which are not problematic for you in the least, infect others. Of course, we realize that the launching of such a website at this juncture in time is coincidental and not planned in any shape or form! But I have to congratulate its founders, for their savvy in discrediting the members of the Campaign.
* Our telephones are controlled in such an obvious fashion so as to inflict in us a perpetual fear designed to force us to “voluntarily” end contact with other members of the Campaign.
* In the midst of all this, you keep summoning us to court, so that you can clearly convey the message that you have no problems with our demands, and of course, in the course of your friendly advice, you let slip information about how terrible women’s rights activists in competing groups really are. How these women envy us -- and perhaps you have similar words for the women in the “competing groups.” In total astonishment we witness how this fabricated competition of yours, spreads and intensifies with the help of rumors. Finally it seems that every single mistake by members of each group, aided by rumors, leads us into a new crisis, daily lending the notion of our competition a little more truth. Thanks to the vast rumor mills at your disposal, women’s NGOs, which by their nature adopt different strategies and approaches to their work on behalf of women, turn to despair in trying to decide exactly how to address these crises within the women’s movement or in trying to understand their sources.
After five months and given the advice offered by some of you in the security forces to members of the Campaign, we have come to the conclusion that you don’t have a problem with the Campaign or with our demands” rather you have a problem with the expression of these demands in the metro, streets and alleys, buses, and places of employment. You have a problem with the expression of these demands through venues such as national and official media outlets like the TV or Radio, internet sites and newspapers as well as in our own websites,,at seminars or workshops, and at international forums and events to which we travel. You have a problem with the expression of our demands to international women’s rights activists. And, you have a problem when we discuss these demands among ourselves even if these discussions take place in the privacy of our homes. And, you have a problem with every single individual involved in the Campaign, who chooses to lend expression to these demands, meaning the young activists who are deceived, the parents who don’t reprimand their children for their activities on behalf of women and with the activists who deceive young girls into joining them in this effort. That’s All!!
It seems that after having to deal with all these adventures and misfortunes over the past five months, we have truly come to understand and feel that you have no problems with our demands, but instead with the individual women and men who through peaceful and civic means work to realize these demands.
As such, we respectfully ask you to roll up your sleeves in an effort to grant Iranian women their rights, so that the men governing this land can document and forever claim this historical achievement as their own. I swear it’s a shame to waste all this energy on limiting and controlling the women’s movement and on trying to isolate us and relegate us to our homes. Oh, how I wish you would expend all this energy and your organizational savvy for the purpose of lobbying and advocacy with members of parliament and religious leaders, in an effort to develop and pass just legislation in favor of Iranian women and their rights. How I wish you would utilize the advanced technology and other tools of control at your disposal -- which has quite possibly been imported from the very “Western” countries, with which our contact is considered a criminal act -- to achieve equal rights for women. By the way, I wonder if educational workshops in foreign countries for the purpose of learning advanced strategies and technologies of control exist?
We have endured patiently all the obstacles of control you have placed along our path. This endurance takes place at a time when daily we feel the weakness of our civil society as it comes face to face with the all consuming power of government. But you see that we continue. Do you know why? Because we benefit from a love and passion that you refuse to understand or accept. We have no other choice but to create change and improve our lives. And we have nothing to lose but our lives themselves. In its current state, the lives of Iranian women remain demeaning and unbearable. Despite all the advanced efforts at control and the emergence of numerous obstacles our love and passion for change and improvement is so immense in fact, that it continues to flourish in our hearts.
While it is quite possible that our love and passion seems minuscule when compared to the countless number of security personnel charged with controlling and stopping us and the advanced tools at your disposal, I have no doubt that in the end this motherly and womanly love will pervail over the male-oriented system of control. .
Perhaps we will be imprisoned and become weary with the continuous summons to court. Perhaps we will not be able to continue along our path and educate our female counterparts about the existence of such discriminatory laws. But, what will you do with the countless women who come into contact with the court system -- in fact, these very courts are the best educational facilities for women, through which they quickly learn that in fact they have no rights. Yes, perhaps with your security planning and your modern technology, you may be able to isolate and paralyze the current generation of Iranian women’s rights activists, and stop the progression of our Campaign, but what will you do with the love that we plant in the hearts of our children? Perhaps with your advanced technology, you will be able to attack the hearts of our personal computers, but what will you do with our dreams? Comment
This articles was translated by Sussan Tahmasebi.